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Washington D.C. Travel Tips and Secrets

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I grew up outside of Washington D.C. (Arlington, to be exact) but left when I was 20. My immediate family still lives there — parents holding down the fort in the same house with the green trees and southern-style wraparound porch that I grew up in — which means I still. visit for holidays and family events.

Although I decided, long ago, I’d never want to live there (too many politicians, I like to joke), going home always brings back nostalgia and excitement about popping by some of my favorite Washington D.C. spots. Ours is a love-hate relationship: as much as I wanted to get out of D.C., it still has a personality unlike any other; one that really influenced who I am today.

All this to say, my version of D.C. isn’t full of the hippest brunch spots (D.C. loves a good brunch) or latest cocktail bars, but rather a collection of the best-kept secrets and local hidden gems that make up its core personality. Below are my favorite Washington D.C. gems and D.C. travel tips that I, as a native, (but no longer a local) will be visiting when I go home for the holidays.

What to Eat: Quintessential Restaurants & Food Spots

Ben's Chili Bowl

Food may not be what most people know D.C. for, but for me, it’s the first thing I think of — after all, who doesn’t associate home with food?

In my opinion, food in D.C. means politically-charged hangouts, crabs, southern soul food, cupcakes (yes, cupcakes), and an incredibly diverse ethnic food scene (think: Salvadorian, Peruvian, Ethiopian, French, and all over the rest of the globe). Although there are many new and noteworthy restaurants I could highlight, below are the mainstays that make me love eating in Washington D.C.:

Ted’s Bulletin

For most of my friends who still live in D.C., Ted’s Bulletin isn’t anything special — it’s a solid, New American brunch spot but nothing to obsess over.

So, why do I love it? Two reasons: “adult” (alcoholic) milkshakes and an old-school D.C. newsroom-y vibe. Oh, they’re also known for their homemade pop tarts, if that’s your thing.

Busboys and Poets

Established in 2005, this U-Street hangout, Busboys and Poets, is at once a cafe/restaurant, political bookstore, theater, and lounge.

A politically charged space where you’re just as likely to grab a sandwich and a beer as you are to listen to an open-mic poetry night or watch a presidential debate screening (with a rhetorical discussion beforehand, naturally). The name itself is a head nod to the American poet, Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park hotel in the ’30s.

Since the opening of the original, there are now several other locations throughout the D.C. area.

Georgetown Cupcake

Baked & Wired Cupcakes

Perhaps I’m dating myself, but do you remember the cupcake craze that swept the nation a few years ago? Or the hit TLC show that featured two batter-slinging sisters, Katherine and Sophie, baking up delicious cupcakes in the heart of D.C?

Just in case you missed it, cupcakes were totally a thing in D.C. and the sisters’ bakery, Georgetown Cupcake, is by far the most popular spot to try one (hence the ridiculously long lines). If you’re not up for the wait, though, nearby Baked & Wired tends to be less crazy and just as delicious.

Empanadas, Pupusas, & Peruvian Chicken

While in D.C., you’re bound to have someone suggest going out in Adam’s Morgan. It’s a bit of a bro-scene, but one of my favorite parts are the cheap late night eats on 18th. Specifically, Julia’s Empanadas, which serves up a variety of hot and hearty empanadas for under $5.

Representative of the strong South American presence in and around the city — D.C. also has quite a few Peruvian chicken places like the international chain, El Pollo Loco, and Super Pollo. Thirdly, you can also find some great Salvadorian run pupuserias — my favorite being an unassuming spot in Arlington called Pupuseria Dona Azucena.

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl isn’t much of a secret — the walls of the original U-Street joint (they’ve recently expanded to H Street NE, Nationals Park, and Regan Airport) are plastered with photos of celebrities and famous politicians who have dropped by for a bowl of chili or a chili dog.

What it is, though, is an unfussy eatery that’s been at the heart of the historically African-American U Street neighborhood since 1958, enduring race riots, tough economic times, and — most recently — gentrification. I’m not sure there are many other places in the world that could serve you up a side of history with your chili dog.

Lebanese Taverna

The original Lebanese Taverna opened up about half a mile from my house and I’ve been going there my entire life. My parents were regulars and it holds a special place in my heart (I mean stomach?) both for the memories and the damned good Middle Eastern tapas. In every city I’ve lived in since, I’ve searched for a Lebanese Taverna equivalent; nothing ever comes close.

As I grew up, so did the sons of the owner of the Lebanese Taverna; each of whom went on to open up their own Lebanese Taverna throughout the D.C metro area. This local, family-owned chain that’s not to be missed — especially if you’ve never had fatayer.

Ethiopian food

Ethiopian food

Even if you’re not a fan of injera, grabbing an Ethiopian dinner in D.C. is a must in my book. Washington D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the United States and, as such, some of the best Ethiopian restaurants and markets in the nation.

Although U-Street and Adams Morgan have long ago lost their unofficial title of “Little Ethiopia” (as well as Meskerem, previously the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in the city), you can still find a few good spots in that area. However, if you’re up for the trek, Silver Spring, Maryland is said to be the new epicenter of Ethiopian food and culture.

Abner’s Crabhouse & Quarterdeck

Nearby Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay are famous for their blue crabs. If you’re in the D.C. area in the summertime, definitely gather a friend (or five) and have a crab feast.

As a kid, we’d drive an hour from our home in Arlington to shore-side Abner’s Crabhouse in Maryland (their slogan? Abner’s: Where it’s OK to have crabs!).

More recently, though, we’ll stick closer to home and pig out at Quarterdeck, a crab and seafood joint nestled among a hub of condos in Arlington’s Courthouse neighborhood. Reservations highly recommended.

Things to Do: That Aren’t Museums

Though it may seem like it, I really don’t spend all my time in D.C. eating. Especially having spent most of my pre-21 years in D.C., I often had to get creative with things to do. Sure, the punk-record shop in Georgetown may be a thing of the past, but below are a few things that, 10-years later, I still look forward to doing in D.C. and sharing with any friends I bring along for the visit:

Eastern Market

Eastern Market

Eastern Market is a staple of the Capitol Hill neighborhood; an old public market housed in a 19th-century building. Filled with food stalls, a farmers market, and a flea market, it’s a great place to waste a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (when additional stalls will open up outside of the main building).

Nearby, a more recently opened and less touristy food hall, Union Market, is also worth a visit.

Catch a Show at the Black Cat, or the 9:30 Club

D.C. is no New York or Nashville, but it does have a vibrant and dedicated music scene. Particularly notable for its roots in the hardcore rock movement (largely thanks to Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat), a strong punk scene, a local funk genre called go-go, and its historical title of the “Bluegrass Capital of America” in the 50s and 60s.

Standing at the forefront of the D.C. music scene is the 9:30 Club, perhaps the most famous venue in the city, and The Black Cat, which was established by Nirvana drummer and NoVA native, Dave Grohl.

I’ve always loved how there was this subversive and equally political music scene that ran parallel to the lobbying and law-making of D.C. government officials and bureaucrats (yeah social disruption!).

Visiting the Memorials & Cherry Blossoms at Night

washington monument at night

Going to the memorials, The Mall, and seeing the cherry blossoms are perhaps the most touristy things you could possibly do in D.C. While I’d still recommend a visit (they’re popular for a reason), my best local tip is to go at night (or on a 5 a.m. jog a la House of Cards) since the memorials and The National Mall are open 24 hours.

On a warm summer night, I used to love having a beer while sitting across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial on the quiet and tourist-free George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Christmas Tree on the National Mall

A special holiday event is the lighting of the National Christmas Tree each December. Even if you don’t catch the ceremony itself, it’s a lovely and festive excuse to wander over to the Mall around the holidays.

Find Political Books at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, or Politics & Prose

If you’re feeling inspired by, and not tired of, D.C. politics, head over to Kramerbooks & Afterwards Cafe, in the heart of D.C.’s LGBTQ neighborhood, Dupont Circle, or indie bookstore Politics & Prose to browse their book collections. It’s nerdy souvenir shopping to the extreme.

Rooftop Drinks at POV at the W Washington Hotel

This is more of my parents’ tip than mine, but they always loved bringing visitors to the W to get drinks on their rooftop bar, POV. I haven’t been there since I was a kid, but they have since given the space a modern facelift and transformed it into a swanky and stylish space.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Since D.C. doesn’t allow buildings taller than 130 feet to be built (which helps lend the city its small-town vibes), the bar’s view of the Washington Monument and White House remains the same. Just note that there is a dress code (no flip-flops or athletic wear) and a cocktail will set you back $16. Ouch.

Great Falls National Park & the Shenandoah

virginia

Being — in all technicality — a Virginian, I have to throw a couple of my south-of-the-city favorites in here: Great Falls National Park and the Shenandoah Valley. Great Falls is between Dulles Airport and D.C. and an easy day or half-day trip for hiking, picnicking, or rock climbing. Just, uh, don’t swim in the Potomac.

Shenandoah is a little further, but an absolutely gorgeous drive through Virginia’s rolling hills not too far from the Appalachian Trail. Personally, I think it’s best in the fall, when the vista points will greet you with what feels like an endless sea of orange and red tree tops. Plus, there are a few wineries in this region you can visit — just in case beautiful nature wasn’t enough to convince you.

Transportation: Getting To & Around D.C.

Getting Around

Driving in D.C. is a bitch — but not all the time. The workaholic city that it is, D.C. is terrible for driving before 7:30 p.m. Monday – Saturday but it’s not so bad at night or on Sundays (when street parking is free). When not driving, take the Metro or Uber.

Flying In

Getting to D.C. proper is easiest from Regan (DCA) and Baltimore (BWI) if you’re relying on public transportation (there’s a cheap train that connects Baltimore to Union Station). They’re still working on expanding the Metro out to Dulles (IAD), so prepare to either take an expensive taxi ($60), shuttle, or rent a car.

Bus & Train

If you’re coming from Boston, New York, Philly, or elsewhere on the Eastern seaboard, another option is to take a “Chinatown bus” (Bolt and Megabus being the most popular). Back when I first started taking them, they’d transport you from random Chinatown block in NYC to random Chinatown block in D.C., but they’ve since become more official and have pick up points in Union Station.

Washington D.C. Packing List for Fall & Winter

Autumn in D.C. can be a mixed bag. Some days are pleasant, cool, and sunny. Others are cold and miserable. Winter tends to be pretty and cold and sometimes see snow. My packing suggestions for a fall or winter trip to D.C. are below:

Clothing

  • 2-3 sweaters or sweatshirts
  • 2-3 pairs of pants (I’d recommend skinny jeans or bootcut jeans — flared pants are miserable if it’s wet or snowy)
  • 2 lighter-weight tops for layering (or in case of a nice day)
  • 1 skirt + thick tights for the ladies
  • 1 pair of low, comfortable boots
  • 1 pair of sneakers (for hikes or jogging)
  • 1 good coat
  • Warm socks
  • Hat, scarf, and gloves in the winter
  • Under armor in the winter (or plan to wear tights under your pants)
  • 1 nice outfit or blazer if you plan to go to a fancier dinner or a club. Dress code applies in this city.

Miscellaneous

In addition to your usual electronics, toiletries, and miscellaneous items, I’d definitely make sure you bring:

  • An umbrella
  • A day bag or tote bag
  • Body lotion + good Chapstick (the dry winter air really takes a toll on your skin)
  • Reusable water bottle

TL;DR

As my hometown, the Washington D.C. area means a lot of things to me. For one, it represents a lifestyle I no longer want to live in: a work-and-politics-obsessed population, bureaucracy, traffic jams, the red line, and winters with snow.

At the same time, it also represents a of things I love: a diverse, international culture, passionate activists, a lively punk scene, and nearby green, rolling hills of Virginia. If you’re traveling to D.C. make sure you don’t miss these best kept secrets and local hidden gems:

  • Eat at quintessentially D.C. restaurants like activist haven, Busboys and Poets, press-room themed Ted’s Bulletin, Georgetown Cupcakes, and Ben’s Chili Bowl.
  • Explore the international cuisine in D.C. with Lebanese Taverna, Julia’s Empanadas, Little Ethiopia, or any number of ethnic eateries in the area.
  • Here in the summer? Go get some crabs on the Maryland side.
  • Visit Eastern Market for flea market shopping and bites.
  • See the monuments and the Mall at night when it’s less crowded. Visiting in the winter? Stop by the Christmas tree on The National Mall.
  • Go to a show or out dancing at an iconic D.C. venue like the Black Cat or 9:30 Club.
  • Get outside and visit Great Falls or Shenandoah in Virginia (psst, they have wine!).
  • The best view of the White House? The POV bar on top of The W Washington Hotel.

Photo credit: Ben’s Chili Bowl, Baked & Wired Cupcakes, Ethiopian food, Virginia, tpsdave, Pixabay.

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